Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Dún na nGall Kings Defeat Students From Queens

Another win recorded for Donegal tonight in Ballybofey against Queens University and whatever about the epitaphs of this year’s McKenna Cup as regards qualification and the blooding of players, Jim McGuinness can look back on a tournament where he’s trebled his win rate. He again picked a strong side for this encounter with the Belfast students; the Neils, McGee and Gallagher, in from the start after seeing second half action in Armagh on Sunday.

Being stationed in Dublin and not being able to make the game tonight meant relying on Highland Radio and Twitter for updates – and they were coming thick and fast on a night where Donegal were on the front foot from the word go. The team knew a big score was essential if they were to have any chance of a semi-final spot and Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden didn’t waste time in getting scores on the board.

Donegal ran incessantly at the Queens defence and drew plenty of frees in the process. It can be taken for granted at times but it is such a huge advantage the team possesses in having two of the games deadliest free-takers; and better again having one on either side of the field.

The hosts registered 1-7 in the first half including another thunderbolt of a goal from Murphy, this time from even further out than his effort against Tyrone in O’Donnell Park. The students managed to net two goals in the opening period and that is something that won’t please McGuinness or indeed Damian Diver, who was brought on board this year for his expertise in defence. Moments into the second half Ryan Rafferty bagged his third goal of the night for the visitors.

The auld radio and twitter updates are particular useful on nights like this when scores in other games have a direct effect on your own team; it became fairly clear early on that Monaghan were going to have things much their own way against Fermanagh and in turn pip Donegal to the best runner-up spot - Tyrone, Derry and Cavan all qualified safely as group winners.

Jim again used his bench at half time with Rory Kavanagh, David Walsh and the returning Christy Toye entering the fray; Christy hadn’t pulled on a Donegal jersey since that wonderful day sixteen months ago in the All-Ireland Final. He also endured a long spell away from the action from 2009 to 2011 with an Achilles problem so unfortunately the St Michael’s man is no stranger to long injury lay-offs; hopefully he’ll get a good run at training over the next few months as he always does a job for his side and is a key member of the squad.

Murphy got things going again for his team after the resumption, this time a point off his ‘weaker’ left foot - that is if there is anything weak in his repertoire. This of course was Michael’s first McKenna Cup campaign for Donegal in a number of years having previously been tied to playing with his college, DCU. He looks as sharp as ever and if he can keep this form and fitness up it should be another big year for the maestro.

Stephen McLaughlin saw some more action tonight after making a brief cameo at the Atheltic Grounds at the weekend and he got his name on the score sheet with a point midway through the second period. That just leaves Kilybegs’ Hugh McFadden as the last of newcomers to the panel who has yet to see some action so expect him to be given a run at some stage in league.

The black card was much talked about prior to the McKenna Cup but it didn’t have as big an impact as many had anticipated; it did rear its head more conspicuously in tonight’s game though with three of the students receiving their marching orders and having to be replaced.

Donegal made a good fist of things in the second half as regards racking up a high score, finishing with 3-17; with Monaghan though posting 2-20 in Brewster Park and having a superior points difference coming into tonight, they were always in the driving seat and they go on to meet Cavan this weekend; Tyrone and Derry make up the semi-final quartet.

The one worry on the night was a knock picked up by Rory Kavanagh; we don’t have the strongest of panels but this is especially true around midfield – Kavanagh and Gallagher fully fit are a must for Donegal so that will certainly be a headache for the management team if it turns out to be anything more than just a knock.

So pre-season is done with and next up its National League and O’Moore Park in Portlaoise is the first port of call for green and gold supporters. In theory at least the players should hit the ground running in the league and be well in contention having got some game time into the legs in the last ten days. While undoubtedly Division One is a higher standard, once you go beneath the top three or four teams the rest are on a par with those in the second tier so there’s no such thing as easy games.

Winning the league is a realistic target for McGuinness but it will be anything but straight forward. It worked well in 2011, when we last played in Division Two, losing just one game out of eight and getting better and better as the Championship went on after that. There’ll be no such luxuries available this year – Derry in Celtic Park in our Ulster Championship opener will be a huge challenge and the team must be firing on all cylinders for that.

That tough fixture makes the league even more important; despite getting relegated with the draw against eventual All-Ireland winners Dublin in the last game last season, McGuinness’ men played well that day and it set them up for the battle against Tyrone a few weeks later; and no doubt Jim will be hoping that an appearance on league final day in Croke Park in April could set the boys up nicely for Derry. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Dun na nGall Raid the Orchard

A first McKenna Cup win against inter county opposition for Jim McGuinness today at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh and with it Donegal have given themselves a chance of semi-final spot. That’s largely irrelevant as regards the actual competition but an extra game or two would do his charges no harm at all.

There are still plenty of cobwebs to blow off before the National League commences and for large parts of this game Armagh had control and looked to be well on their way to victory. The introduction of Neil Gallagher in the second half proved decisive; prior to that the home side were dominating the exchanges around the middle but the Glenswilly man’s presence swung the pendulum the way of the green and gold.

Donegal had the better of the first quarter and were two points to the good despite playing into a swirling wind that made shooting very difficult. It seemed to take Armagh a while to realise how best to use the wind to their advantage but once they did they had their best spell of the game, registering four unanswered points; many of them efforts from distance carried over by the breeze.

The Orchard men were intent on not letting Donegal dictate the pace of the game. Paul Grimley encouraged his team to take all restarts as quickly as they good – in one case net-minder Philip McEvoy had taken a short kick out taken before the umpire had barely got his hands on his flag to signal a point for Michael Murphy.

Murphy was marked today by Charlie Vernon, a vastly experienced player but more noted for his midfield endeavours. Michael was brought out to centre forward early in the game and it would have been interesting to see how Vernon would have coped on the edge of the square as a relative rookie in the full-back spot. Instead he saw more of the ball in following Murphy out the field and this probably suited him and his teammates.

While Vernon and Armagh saw plenty possession in the first half they were rather ponderous with the ball and didn’t appear to have a definitive way to break down the Donegal defensive screen – only when they began to use the wind to good effect did the scoreboard begin to tick in their direction.

Buncrana youngster Darach O’Connor again made the starting fifteen and opened his Donegal account as well with the game’s first score. Even in the wet and heavy conditions his pace and power was evident but it will be on a drier sod and with a quicker tempo that he’ll really come into his own. Just as he did against Tyrone last week, he began to cramp up towards the end of today’s proceedings and its just goes to show the massive step up there is from minor to senior – O’Connor was replaced by fellow newcomer Stephen McLaughlin for the last few minutes.

Pace is the key differentiator in the modern game and because O’Connor possesses that he has every chance of making it at the top level. Other speed merchants such as today’s centurion Frank McGlynn, Karl Lacey and Leon Thompson (who was introduced at the break) can find it hard to discover their best form at this time of year but when Summer comes they eat up the yards.

The kick-out strategy on display last week wasn’t used as much today; the movement around the middle third was still taking place but things were much more crowded in that sector than they were in O'Donnell Park. Michael Boyle was between the sticks and he incurred the wrath of the home support on numerous occasions when taking his restarts. On placing the ball he’d pause to wait for a signal or a run from one of his midfielders or half forwards as to where the kick should go; this took up to a few seconds each time and the crowd were getting restless but again its all part of the work that is going on with the kick outs at training.

Armagh were much smarter with the ball after the short whistle; knowing that scoring from distance wasn’t an option against the wind they instead executed short kick passes to their inside forwards who took on their men at every opportunity and were rewarded with a couple of easy scores early in the second half; Robbie Tasker and Niall McConville were both particularly impressive with ball in hand.

It was here that Donegal really missed Paddy McGrath. While Eamon McGee, Frank McGlynn and today Declan Walsh all have experience of playing corner-back, McGrath is the only specialist in this position in the panel. The Ardara man has resumed training following his groin surgery and the sooner we see him back the better.

Of course Karl Lacey has two All-Stars as a corner back but those days seem to behind him; today he was stationed at wing back and it was encouraging to see him in action after so many different injury problems over the past year.

Armagh held their lead for most of the second half but when Colm McFadden netted after a goal mouth scramble the visitors sensed an opportunity. It was Murphy and Odhran MacNiallais who stood up to be counted in the closing stretch; the Gaoth Dobhair man produced a massive last ten minutes to get his side over the line. First he cleanly fetched a McEvoy kick-out and immediately off-loaded to his captain who split the posts from 40 yards.

Murphy then scored a wonderful free soon after to put his team one point to the good – the effort was from the ground on the far touchline on the 21-yard line and it sailed over the black spot. MacNiallais would have the final word as he registered Donegal’s final two points to cap an excellent individual performance and put the seal on a two point win for McGuinness’men.

While it was good to get the win, the positives were in the chances given to players such as Thompson, Gallagher and David Walsh, the Naomh Brid clubman making a real difference when introduced; they all need game time as they work their way back from injuries or in Thompson’s case, get used to the rigours of inter county football again. MacNiallais and O’Connor got another game under their belts while we will likely see more from Malin’s McLaughlin in the coming weeks.

The final Section A fixtures take place this coming Wednesday and Donegal are well positioned for a crack at the last four.  It might well be a night for the calculators with score difference likely to be the deciding factor; as it stands now Donegal could conceivably finish anywhere from 1st to 4th in the group.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Dún na nGall Suffer 2nd Half Harte-Attack

Five long months have passed since humiliation in Croke Park but the New Year brings new hope to all counties and today, players and supporters alike were glad to be back in action. The result didn’t go to plan but they generally don’t for Donegal at this time of year so nothing much to worry about there.

We’ve become used to battles with the Red Hand over the past few years and again the game’s two eminent minds patrolled the sidelines at O’Donnell Park. It was Mickey Harte who won the battle of wits as his charges reacted to and bettered the home side’s tactics and were deserving winners. Jim McGuinness will be more concerned with the wars of Summer rather than battles in January.

Donegal started brightly in what was a good contest throughout considering the poor underfoot conditions and the fact that McKenna Cup fare can be sloppy at the best of times.

What was clear straight away was the amount of time Donegal have spent on the training field concocting ways to win primary possession from their own kickouts. Key to Dublin’s All-Ireland win last September was the ability of Stephen Cluxton to find his men on his restarts and it was particularly evident in the final against Mayo. While Durcan isn’t in the same league as Dublin captain Cluxton, his low trajectory missiles are a hugely important part of Donegal’s artillery, especially when Neil Gallagher is unavailable.

Donegal’s plan today was based on their two midfielders, Rory Kavanagh and Odhran MacNiallais, along with the two wing forwards, Gary McFadden and Marty Reilly, bunching at centrefield before a pair broke to either side; if their runs weren’t followed Durcan was expected to find his player. If the run was covered then Michael Murphy, stationed at centre forward when Durcan had the ball on his tee, would make a late run into the space vacated by the quartet and he picked up plenty possession in the first half from this tactic.

It was working well but once Harte got talking to his charges at the break the possession dried up. This is the manager after all who deciphered Armagh’s 2002 All-Ireland winning kick-out strategy, thus helping his own troops to the Holy Grail the following year. Harte instructed his middle four to follow their runners while the ever impressive Tyrone full back Conor Clarke was well out in front of Murphy for kick-outs, allowing him to block the Glenswilly man’s runs where possible.

In truth, Tyrone today looked as they always do - comfortable in possession, eager to work and, when chances came their way, clinical. Harte has the unique ability to fit new, upcoming players seamlessly into his setup and this was conveyed today by the last of the McGuigan brother's to make their inter-county bow, Shay.

For the time Donegal were on top in the first half, they took some excellent scores and the attacks from deep we’ve become accustomed to in the McGuinness era were working well. Eamon McGee, playing at full back, got a wonderful score after gathering possession on his own 21yard line before galloping up field and finishing a move that involved Reilly, Colm McFadden and Dermot Molloy.

The hosts’ dominance wasn’t showing on the scoreboard and their cause wasn’t helped by Murphy’s penalty miss – this after failing to convert a penalty against the same side in Omagh last year. Credit must go to Niall Morgan who produced a fantastic save down low to his right.

Michael soon made amends though; after a delicious pick-up on the run, he bore down on goal and fired a bullet into the same corner that his penalty attempt had targeted – there was no stopping this one.
The captain repeated his pick-up trick early in the second half as he hoisted a fine point over the black spot while under pressure from his marker Clarke. Murphy though was the only Donegal player to register in the second half (0-2) and the game soon got away from the men sporting their new green and (predominantly) gold jerseys.

Leo McLoone brought his good form from the recent challenge games into today’s match in his centre back role. This was the role Jim had initially planned for Leo back in 2011 and he was excelling in the role at the time, most notably against today’s opposition in a league game in Healy Park that year, but a nasty ankle fracture put paid to those plans. Plan B back then wasn’t too bad though, a certain Mr Lacey becoming Footballer of the Year in the No 6 jersey a year later. Whether McLoone stays there remains to be seen but it’s quite likely he will for the league, with Lacey being moved to wing back or possibly fulfilling a wing forward berth when he regains fitness.

Bar the kickouts and Leo’s positioning, Jim didn’t provide much more new material in today’s game. The team have not gone down the Dublin/Mayo route of engaging the opposition higher up the pitch at their 45m line; instead Donegal stay on their own ‘45’ and try to dispossess and counter attack from there.

Every All-Ireland winning team is mimicked by all the other teams the following year - we saw that ourselves last year - but aside from putting more emphasis on primary possession from kick-outs McGuinness wont be taking too much from the Dublin blueprint.

For all the talk of black cards over the Winter we only saw one shown today and that was to Eunan’s man, Kavanagh. Seeing a game in action illustrates the ‘deliberate’ ingredient in the new rules – only when a referee is certain that one of the black card category fouls has been committed deliberately can he brandish his notebook. So it may not have that big an effect on inter-county games, aside from the few controversial calls that will inevitably be made. It will be the club players the length and breadth of the country that will really feel the full force of the new rules.

Kavanagh’s midfield partner MacNiallais can be happy with his day’s work and the Gaoth Dobhair youngster will be looking to nail down a starting place for the league somewhere amongst the middle eight. His dainty left foot compliments his wonderful vision and on today’s showing he is a good option for McGuinness as a deep lying playmaker. His club form in the past shows too that he’s well able to get on the scoreboard which makes him an even greater asset should he be needed further forward.

So all in all it was the proverbial game of two halves for Donegal - promising and encouraging in the first but outfought and out thought in the second. That’s what these games are all about though, finding out what is working, what isn’t and how to remedy those facets of play.

Next stop Athletic Grounds this day week.